by Khalid Bashir Gura
SRINAGAR: On March 24, 8 pm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 21 days nationwide lockdown to curb Coronavirus pandemic. The students studying at various coaching centres at Kota, Rajasthan from Jammu and Kashmir restricted themselves to their rented rooms. There was no option – travelling more than 1000 kilometres in four hours was impossible.
All the while students confined themselves to their rooms and hostels in soaring Rajasthan temperatures. Hopeful for respite and ease in restrictions after the end of the first lockdown, the stranded students keenly followed the second address to the nation by Prime Minister on April 15, but that also left them disillusioned as the lockdown was extended till May 3, 2020.
It was finally in the last week of April that the administration in Jammu and Kashmir sent a fleet of buses to drive the students home. One of them is Inam – not his real name.
The 19-year-old is a resident of Bandipora and is a National Entrance Eligibility Test (NEET) aspirant. He was in Kota Kota for coaching.
“I along with more than 300 students left Kota on April 26, in 15 SRTC buses dispatched by J&K administration to bring back stranded students. After two days of travelling from Kota to Kashmir, we reached on Tuesday morning, April 28,” Inam said.
Even though the journey was arduous, it is a respite from the soaring summer’s temperatures of Rajasthan and the anxiety of homesickness and confinement at the hostel,” says Inam, visibly tired and anxious at the frequent calls by officials to report back as he is home quarantined without “official permission.”
Inam hopes he and many of his friends after testing don’t have to report to administrative quarantine.
It was through the use of social media especially Twitter, that students were able to highlight their plight to various media outlets and officials in Jammu and Kashmir administration. Many like Inam were getting anxious as the students of other states were already returning to their homes. Clueless about returning home, the students took to social media and highlighted their plight with the concerned officials back home and in Rajasthan.
“It was only after media attention and social media clamouring that authorities initiated efforts for our return,” said one of the students.
Most of them were reluctant to return. Inam and his friends had decided to sit for the examination in Kota itself and not in Kashmir.
“We thought it won’t last long, even the lockdown. So we stayed and confined ourselves to hostels and prepared online. But as days passed struggle with lockdown also began,” says Inam who was worried about his health amidst pandemic. Besides the quality of food was getting deteriorated at the hostel during the pandemic and fewer options to avail a balanced diet, the students focus and time also got disrupted by pandemic and lockdown. It was difficult for them to cope up with 42 degrees temperature.
“Up till Jammu, we faced no problem but as soon as we entered Kashmir we were stopped frequently for unknown reasons for hours at check posts,” Inam said. “Upon reaching the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) Srinagar we were allowed to go home.”
As they reached the TRC, they were advised by authorities to stay in home quarantine. Now they said they are getting calls to report for tests and get quarantined at government-designated places. During their long travel, Inam said, they were screened at various entry and exit points from Kota to Kashmir.
“What is the point of the stamp on our arms which mentions we will be home quarantined,” visibly distressed Inam said. Since April 30, Inam is in administrative quarantine at Bandipora. Some of his neighbours had tipped the officials about his arrival.
As they reached home, they got a cool environment. But they are caught in another crisis, the snail-pace internet.
Tufail Ahmed, 19, who lives in Shopian, had also been to Kota for coaching, is quarantined at a tourist hut in Pahalgam.
“Even though I along with my friends had planned to return and booked tickets but they all got cancelled. We were left helpless. Kota is an education hub and we were oblivious to pandemic developments,” says Tufail. “We are again helpless here as we bear stamps of home quarantine but have been put in government-designated quarantine.”
The students, however, are happy with the quarantine facilities but lack warm clothes as they have returned from Rajasthan. “The accommodation is good but I miss family,” says Tufail who wants the government to test them in quarantines and send them home if the tests are negative.
Aatif Ahmed (name changed), 20, a resident of Bemina, Srinagar, has been in Kota for two years for his coaching. Scared, he along with his sister who is also studying at Kota, at the initial stage of pandemic tried to come back but couldn’t as the flights were grounded.
As news of pandemic spread across boundaries, the parents back home grew tense. Soon, the coaching centres were closed and the food crisis started hitting the kitchens. For many days, the students said they had to survive by eating Maggie and other junk foods. Later some residents served them food when students paid them.
“Even though the claims by authorities were that the arrangements will be done for students and were ordered to stay put but nothing substantial was done on the ground,” says Aatif who is now quarantined.
The UT administration in Jammu seemed to have stirred into action only after the other state governments retrieved their students back.
On April 26, the students left Kota at 8 am and reached Kashmir at 5 am, the next day. As the restaurants all through the journey were closed because of the lockdown the students were dependent on government dispatched packed foods, disproportionate to the number of students.
The students were stopped at Lower Munda where the segregation of took place. “Even though we got seals of home quarantine on our arms yet we have been quarantined away from our families,” one student said. “The bureaucrats and other influential parents were already waiting at designated places for their children and they bypassed the quarantine.” He gave no specific instances, however.
The overall number varies. Some reports said 369 and Rohit Kansal, the official spokesman, said they were 376.